Shawn Reilly Simmons
It’s hard to believe it’s already the end of 2023, and the new year is only a few days away. Time has passed quickly, and while that’s a cliche, it seems especially true this year.
It’s been twelve months since I wrapped up my cancer treatments, having spent all of 2022 going back and forth to Baltimore every week until I finally turned the corner at Thanksgiving that year. While some memories are beginning to fade around the edges from that traumatic time, much of it still feels like it just happened, even though I now have the whole of 2023 under my belt without anyone poking me or pumping me full of chemo yuck.
My focus this year has been on rebuilding, repairing, reevaluating, restoring, and reassessing every aspect of life and work.
It’s been a lot of hard work to catch things up, get back to normal, and rebuild every aspect of life from zero, all the while dealing with the small whispers in the back of my mind I could be called back down to Baltimore any minute to start treatments up again. But after each checkup, I gained more confidence that I was truly done with all that and out of the woods. PTSD is common among survivors, and I’m here to tell you, it’s a thing.
As a former runner, it was such an achievement, both mentally and physically, to simply start walking every morning. I could only make it to the corner and back at first, then around the block, and now I can go as many miles as I want.
That training came in very handy when I made it to Bouchercon in San Diego, where I connected with over forty “Besties.” I was fit and ready to meet with so many of you for one-on-one meetings on multiple days. Our “selfie” photos were so popular I had people messaging me when they hadn’t seen one of you yet (I even had one person ask if I could do one with Rhys Bowen….not a Bestie…). We went “mystery world viral” at Bouchercon! It truly was a magical trip and a highlight of my year, spending time with so many of our authors. We’re so proud of you. Seeing so many of you in one place was amazing.
In November, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at an oncology/hematology conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The attendees were all healthcare professionals, everyone from medical staff to insurance firms to legislators who advocate for cancer patients and research funding on Capitol Hill. The theme of my speech was staying positive through cancer treatments. It was my first time giving an hour-long speech, an experience I’ll never forget. The audience consisted of people who have dedicated their careers to helping people like me, people who deal with this devastating disease on a daily basis and I had them laughing and crying at different points during my speech. But the main point was they appreciated hearing about my experience and what things are like from a patient’s perspective, especially a patient who remained positive through some of the worst medical experiences you can imagine. The title of my speech was “What Kind of Life Do You Have?” and my answer is I have a pretty great life, regardless of everything that’s been thrown my way from the very beginning to today. It’s a well-known thing in their line of work: patients who stay positive almost always fare better through treatment than those who don’t. I believe this concept applies to everything we choose to take on in life.
Writing this speech (9,000 words!) wasn’t hard for me. I have always lived a life of gratitude and thankfulness. Every morning, it is my habit when I first wake up to say “Thank You,” and then I list all the things I’m grateful for. My list begins with the new day, my good health, and my loving family, then radiates out to include things like living in a beautiful and safe place, owning a home, having friends I can count on, working in a career I love…the list goes on. Every day on my list, I offer thanks and gratitude for Level Best Books, those of us who own and work at the publishing house, the business we’ve built, the relationships we’ve developed, and the ever-growing list of talented authors we publish.
Verena and I could not have predicted what this year would look like eight years ago when we decided to take on this press that was ceasing operation. I saw a post on Facebook, and for some reason, I knew we had to have it. A few weeks later, I was on my way to Boston to sign the papers to take ownership. Acquiring LBB was one of the luckiest and best decisions ever.
Each year, we grow by learning, improving, and refining, all while remaining grateful for all those stages of growth. It’s a business, so there are some days that are less fun or more challenging than others, like everything in life, but overall, we are so proud of where we are right now. Most of all, we are incredibly excited about the future.
This was also a year of transition and change. We went from three partners to two and reassigned those affected authors to new primary editors. I am so grateful to be working with my newly acquired writers, and now the LBB workload is evenly distributed. In May, right after the convention, with a full year’s notice, I resigned from my paid position at Malice Domestic, at which time I turned over all duties, passwords, assets, sites, platforms, etc., and had multiple meetings, zooms, and calls to help ease the transition to my replacement(s). It was a difficult decision to leave a position I’d held for so long, but once you’ve been through what I have, things become very clear in the aftermath. While giving up a regular salary, I was stretched thin workwise, and the workload on the Malice board was nowhere near evenly distributed. I decided my focus going forward will always be on my health (physical and mental), my family, my writing, and our publishing business. That’s more than enough for anyone to manage well.
My “retirement” from convention planning didn’t last long, however. Two months later, Bouchercon recruited me to join their board, and I will co-chair Bouchercon in Washington, D.C., in 2027, along with Cheryl Head. I’m honored to have been asked and am excited to be working with a professional group of mystery convention planners—with an evenly distributed workload!
In 2023, Level Best published 138 books. Each was read multiple times: to be acquired, for developmental edits, line edits, and proofread. Each book was formatted for publication in multiple formats by our wonderful production editor, who will always and forever remain nameless and anonymous. Cover art was created in-house for all but a handful of our titles (by me!). In most cases, two to three designs per title were created for consideration (400 or so cover designs!). While, as the publisher, we have the final say on cover art, we like to see what our authors think and offer a variety of choices. Advance Review Copies were created, printed, and shipped to assist our authors in the promotion of their titles. We submitted our titles for review and award consideration and kept our fingers crossed for you all.
We were so proud this year to have had titles nominated for the Agatha, Lefty, Silver Falchion, Shamus (winner!), and Anthony Awards (I hope I’m not missing any!). We are thrilled by every nomination and good review our books receive. We are so excited every time we hear something has gone well for one of our authors, that they’ve had a new success, found a new fan, or gotten some well-deserved recognition, local press, or shout-out for their hard work. Our daily focus is to maintain the good energy going forward and keep the tide rising, the one that’s lifting all of the boats.
All of this is possible due to the dedicated staff at LBB. Verena and I are very grateful for Deb, the rest of our staff, and our wonderful in-house agent, Cindy Bullard. They all work hard daily to move the business forward, keep things under control, maintain editor sanity, and all matter of other things that may come up, no matter the situation.
We’ve been working on things behind the scenes to ensure 2024 is our best year yet. We’re very excited about the new marketing initiatives we’ve been developing, and as always, we are seeking new opportunities for our authors. More to come on all of that.
Now, when anyone asks me what kind of life I have, I do not hesitate. I’m grateful for everything that has happened, good, bad, and otherwise, and I’m very excited to see what this new year brings us all.
Here’s to a happy and healthy 2024!
All the best and big love,
Shawn Reilly Simmons is the author of nine novels in the Red Carpet Catering mystery series featuring Penelope Sutherland, chef-owner of a movie set catering company. She’s also written several short stories which have been published in various anthologies, including “Burnt Orange” in Passport to Murder: the 2017 Bouchercon Anthology; “The Prodigy” in Mystery Tour, the Crime Writers' anthology.
In addition to her own writing, Shawn is President and Managing Editor at Level Best Books, a crime fiction press with a roster of roughly two hundred authors. She hosts a weekly podcast, Five Compelling Questions with Shawn, where she chats with writers across all genres about writing. She is also a co-host of the YouTube series We Are What We Read, which features authors highlighting books that have inspired and influenced them and their careers.
She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the Crime Writers’ Association in the UK, and a founding member of The Dames of Detection. Shawn served on the Board of Malice Domestic for over twenty years (2002-2023), where she welcomed hundreds of mystery writers and fans to the Washington, D.C. area each spring to celebrate the genre of Traditional Mystery and Agatha Christie.
Shawn lives in historic downtown Frederick, Maryland, with her husband, son, and Dino, their very huggable French Bulldog.
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